Just got somewhat sidetracked looking on the 38 Degrees site at replies constituents have received from MPs in response to their emails about the forest privatisation. Not sure if it’s my computer or whether the formatting is really as bad as it appears – in which case, can someone help them out? for free? Interesting all the same, to see how MPs reply to such things… 

Steve Webb seems rather unenthusiastic in his defence of Government policy – “the Minister says this, the Minister says that” – and Stephen Williams doesn’t seem to have replied yet. Surely one of the 900+ constituents who contacted him about this issue would have cc’d 38 Degrees by now? [Update: have been tweeted a copy http://d.pr/TYYv. Slightly alarmed by Stephen’s announcement that “The Government will decide on a concrete policy”!]

Many of the letters are similar in tone and content, which is because Labour researchers will have looked at PLP briefs before putting responses together, and Tory researchers will have looked at the PRU equivalent. In my office we tend not to do this, mainly because I am, as my beleaguered staff will attest, a complete pain and will insist on chopping and changing and adding and crossing out until I’ve got things how I like them. Also, if I have personally got involved in an issue, as I have done on forests, I think constituents would prefer to hear what I’ve done, rather than just a general take on it. Anyway, for those of who haven’t contacted me directly about forests, here’s what I said to people who did…

N.B. early version, before we had the Opposition Day debate and vote. And I’ve nicked the new Tory logo from www.louderthanwar.com.

Thank you for your email.

This is an issue I am greatly concerned about and one which I have already taken the opportunity to raise with Jim Paice MP, the Forestry Minister, in the House of Commons. You can see the full exchange here. I have also now signed EDM 1199, which calls on the Government to amend the Public Bodies Bill to remove this threat to our forests.

The Tory-led government’s plan to sell-off England’s forests is an act of environmental vandalism. This is not the first time the Tories have tried to sell off our forests. In the 1980s they sold off thousands of hectares of land. The true value of England’s forests can never be reflected in the price the Tory-led government gets from selling them.

Our forests are a unique and beautiful resource that I believe should be left as they are. In a time where greenhouse gas emissions threaten our natural environment and urbanisation is happening everywhere, I believe it is vitally important we stand up to protect these ancient habitats and I will continue to put pressure on the Government to protect them, rather than sell them for a quick buck.

I am as disheartened as you are that the Government has failed to provide any assurances that important safeguards will be met. I have therefore now written to Mr Paice once again, asking him the following questions:

• What measures will be put in place in the Public Bodies Bill to preserve the public benefits of forests?
• Can the Government confirm that the Forestry Commission will continue to manage tree licensing?
• Schedule 7 of the Public Bodies Bill allows for Forestry Commissioners to be abolished. If they are abolished will the Secretary of State directly manage public forests?
• How will public rights of access remain unaffected?
• Will new owners of land be required to meet current Forestry Commission obligations when managing woodland?
• What land-based businesses will be able to purchase land? Will restrictions on foreign ownership apply?
• What sort of trees will they be able to plant?
• Will the Forestry Commission receive the revenue from the sale of their land?
• What safeguards will be put in place to ensure the sustainable planting of new native woodland?

Another issue of concern is that people could take advantage of a tax loophole by buying up woodlands. This could cost the government millions of pounds in lost tax revenues and cancel out most of the money raised from its sale, a leading accountant has warned. I questioned the Treasury on this issue and received a response stating:

“Where inheritance tax would otherwise be due, a specific rule for woodlands allows for the tax to be deferred until the timber is harvested. The deferral only applies to the value of the timber not the land. In addition, a commercial business that is carried on which includes the ownership of woodland may qualify for the general exemption from inheritance tax that is available for business property.”

I am determined that our natural heritage should not provide a means for wealthy people to avoid paying tax, and I am now seeking advice from tax experts on this. Please be assured that Labour will continue to lead the fight against these plans in Parliament, and work alongside the many community campaigns fighting against these dangerous proposals.

I will write to you again as soon as I receive a response. In the meantime, if there is anything else you feel I could be of assistance with, please do not hesitate to contact me again.

Yours sincerely

Kerry McCarthy

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